Emo: Older Than You Think
It comes as no particular surprise that my writing advice to teens occasionally irritates teenagers, many of whom do not take kindly to someone telling them their writing likely sucks and the only thing for it is to keep at it until it doesn’t suck anymore. They also occasionally get annoyed when you suggest to them (as I do in this follow-up to the original article) that the condition of being a teenager now is pretty much the same as it was 20 years ago (or 40 years ago); the trappings may change (iPods instead of Walkmans instead of transistor radios) but the basic concept is pretty much the same, so despite their feelings that ZOMG EVERYTHING IS TOTALLY DIFFERENT NOW, it’s really not so much.
This was brought to mind when a teenager, blogging on her own site (no, I’m not linking to it; I don’t think this unsuspecting teenage girl needs her site to be overrun by Whateverites, do you?) detailed the various ways she’s offended by my advice piece and how it is wrong, and in pointing out how her generation of teens is drastically different than any other, asserts (and this is an intentional paraphrase) that when people her parents’ age were in school, they didn’t have Emos skulking about in the halls.
This made me giggle. I’m old enough to be this girl’s dad (or at least her dad’s slightly younger brother) and I can assure you that 20+ years ago, we certainly did have Emos, i.e., sulky and morose teens scribbling bad poetry into notebooks and retreating into their music because no one understood them and so on. Our Emos listened British post-punk rather than American post-punk by dint of British post-punk hitting a couple decades earlier, but, otherwise, yeah, pretty much the same concept. We had Bauhaus, they have Fall Out Boy, and both bands just really want to go back in time to the Weimar Republic, what are you going to do. And I’m happy to say the emo-iest folks I knew in high school have acquitted themselves pretty well. Here’s one of them (still looking pretty emo-y, frankly); here’s another. Every picture I have of them in the 1984 yearbook is of them dramatically gazing down at their shoes through their hair. I should really dig that yearbook out. It would be instructive.
And of course, we didn’t invent the dramatically moody young person, either. If you want to take it all the way back, I submit to you that the true Godfather of Emo is not Kurt Cobain or Robert Smith or David Bowie or even Brecht/Weill, but Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who in 1774 unleashed The Sorrows of Young Werther upon the world, with its oh-so-artfully despairing young protagonist doing everything he could to make himself absolutely friggin’ miserable, because it was so much more interesting than being happy. The novel helped to kickstart the Sturm und Drang movement in German literature and music, and what was the Sturm und Drang movement — a movement devoted in wrenching every single possible emotion out of words and music — if not the very proto-est of proto-emo movements?
Sturm und Drang in its turn motivated the Romantic movement, giving us Shelley and Byron and all those other poetic shoe-gazers, and so on and so forth and blah blah blah blah blah until you get suddenly find yourself wedged up against the stage at a The Academy Is… concert with a bunch of sixteen year-old girls screaming their lungs out at William Beckett, who, I gotta admit, has got a whole adorable “Suburban Shelley” look going for him (Seriously; compare and contrast, people). To be clear, I’m not comparing The Sorrows of Young Werther with, say, Fast Times at Barrington High; one’s a landmark of world literature and the other’s a decent album of power pop. I’m just saying you can get from one to the other and recognize them as appealing to more or less the same audience, albeit 234 years apart. So, yeah, Emo’s been around, folks.
This is not to trivialize this girl’s experience of being a teenager, mind you. Being a teenager is powerful thing, because every single damn thing that happens to you happens to you turned up to 11, which is fundamentally different experience than being an adult, in which most things have happened to you more than once, and you’ve generally found the volume knob and cranked it down a couple of notches simply to keep yourself sane. And of course her experience of her teenage years will be different from anyone else’s not in her age cohort; she’ll have different music and movies and world events and generational issues and so on. I for one would not wish late 80s hair metal on anyone else; I’m glad no other teenagers will have to take that bullet.
But at the end of the day, and when you peel away the affects of one year or another, the teenage experience — the massive highs, the crushing lows, the frustrations and irritations and alienations and deep friendships and crushes and riotously funny moments — is what it is, and remains fairly constant. Put a sixteen-year-old from 1968 in a room with one from ’78, ’88, ’98 and today, and after everyone stops laughing at everyone else’s ridiculous clothes, I think we’d find they shared a commonality of experience and outlook. And they would all know an “emo” kid, whether they called him emo or not.